The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), is one of the largest flying birds in the entire world. Once upon a time, these enormous vultures spanned the Pacific states, but could be found as far east as Texas, Florida, and New York. By the 1970s, though, these exceptional birds faced the possibility of extinction. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there were as few as several dozen of these birds at that time. Conservation of California Condors began in earnest in the 1980s. Around this time, most of the dwindling wild population were captured and housed in zoos where their care and breeding could be managed and facilitated. In just over ten years, their population was brought up from around two dozen to over 150 individuals. By 2020, California Condor numbers had surpassed the 500 mark for the first time in over fifty years.
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California Condors breed slowly. Most pairs of nesting condors can produce, at most, a single chick every other year. For a California Condor to become mature enough to breed takes between six and eight years. For this reason, conservation efforts remain slow and methodical. Unlike some other conservation success stories, there is no magic recipe for condors; no secret ingredient that allows them to quickly reproduce and thrive as a species again. Instead, California Condors are faced with a slow tooth-and-nail climb back from the precipice of extinction. It is the agonizing slowness of this climb which makes the outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza even more heartbreaking and frustrating.
As of April 28th, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that twenty California Condors from the Arizona-Utah flock of condors have died of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or “HPAI.” Among more populous bird species, twenty deaths is a pittance; a minor inconvenience which could be attributed to statistical noise. Amongst a critically endangered species like this one, such a death toll is devastating. Estimates place these deaths at a rate of about seven percent of the total wild population of California Condors.
This blow is a major one. Conservationists report that the deaths of these twenty birds, the majority of which were breeding aged adults, represents a ten year setback in conservation efforts. Wild populations of California Condors continue to be closely monitored. While this setback is heartbreaking, it is even more devastating to face the possibility that this is not likely to be the end of the impact of HPAI on California Condors or other delicate bird populations around the world. Until the “Bird Flu” is brought under control, we can expect to see many more major steps backwards in population preservation and recoveries.